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The Engines of God by Jack McDevittFour stars
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Despite a fairly rushed and anticlimactic finale, The Engines of God is a splendid exercise in sense-of-wonder adventure storytelling. Combining familiar tropes of deep space exploration and alien contact with the always-reliable standby of ancient mysteries and lost civilizations, the ever-likable Jack McDevitt has created the kind of exciting page-turner that, most of the time, is just the sort of book we all want to curl up with. It launched a series of stand-alone sagas featuring the interplanetary voyages of Priscilla Hutchins.

The story opens 200 years in the future, following devastating climate change. Ocean levels have risen, famine and plague have waylaid the still-developing world — you name it. Fortunately, faster than light travel has become a reality, so interstellar exploration to find a new home for humanity — or at least some of humanity — is underway.

During these explorations, the first of the strange alien Monuments is discovered on Jupiter’s moon Iapetus. Others are then found in several systems. And each monument is different. A large sculpture on Iapetus that archaeologist Richard Wald thinks is a self-portrait, mysterious square “moons” orbiting the first world found to have an intelligent (if pretechnological) civilization. But the most remarkable find is on a moon circling the planet Quraqua, a series of stone structures built to resemble nothing less than an entire city — but was never a real city. The Quraquat natives, themselves extinct, weren’t the Monument-Makers, but explorations of their own ruins indicate that they did indeed come into contact with the strange species that built this massive edifice, nicknamed “Oz” by its human discoverers. Who were the Monument-Makers? Why did they undertake these projects? Where are they now?

Pilot Priscilla “Hutch” Hutchins flies Wald out to Quraqua to assist in the excavation of an ancient temple. The archaeologists’ timetable is running low. The Earth wants a planet to terraform and Quraqua fits the bill. With only days left until the terraforming teams begin their work, it appears that the excavations are on the cusp of uncovering a vital key to translating an ancient Quraquat language. This would make it possible to translate several crucial inscriptions that are believed to discuss the Monument-Makers, thus solving a whole slew of mysteries: who everyone was, why Oz exists, and why it appears to have been curiously... bombarded.

Though the dig does not end without disaster (they miss their deadline), it turns up plenty of vital, and indeed ominous, information, that sends the entire investigation into a new phase.

McDevitt is thought of as a hard SF writer by many but, strictly speaking, he isn’t. His stories feature solid hard science when they need to, but he’s not averse to such concepts as FTL, or force-field-generating harnesses instead of spacesuits, when the mood suits him (and the story requires the use of such chestnuts to fill out its epic canvas). Hutch is effectively established as a believable heroine from the get-go. Striking the ideal balance between self-assured and insecure, she anchors the exciting narrative. And exciting it is. While it’s true that McDevitt has Hutch and Co. nearly come to grief perhaps one time too many, McDevitt has a remarkable skill at building tension and making you care about his people. A scene where a collision in deep space leaves Hutch and her team stranded, with power draining away and the only possible help due to arrive just a few days too late, is unforgettable, as is the preceding race against time (and an oncoming tsunami!) to evacuate the Quraqua temple. But equally impressive are the book’s quiet moments. The imagery evoked by Hutch’s shuttle flying over Oz, the desolate artificial city guarding its ancient secrets under a cloak of impenetrable time, fire the imagination.

This is also a book that unapologetically goes for broke with scenes such as an attack by hordes of giant alien crabs and a flight for survival over a remote moon covered in lakes of gasoline. Sure, after a while, scenes like these evoke less tension than McDevitt might have desired, but you can’t say they don’t deliver plenty of entertainment value.

It’s only at the end, regrettably, that McDevitt disappoints somewhat. While a number of mysteries are resolved, a key one — in fact, the key one — remains elusive. But it’s not really a liability, when you think about it. Had everything been wrapped up in a tidy bundle, The Engines of God might have been less plausible and successful after all. If there’s one thing that science has taught us about this remarkable universe of ours, it’s that just when you think you’ve got the whole shootin’ match figured out, along comes something entirely unexpected to put you right back where you started. There is always another mystery to solve. Which is why we — and heroes like Priscilla Hutchins — never stop exploring.

McDevitt brought Hutch back in 2001’s Deepsix.